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Work Addiction: The Workaholism Syndrome

Work Addiction: the Workaholism Syndrome

I can’t stop working!

Chiara Curatoli, Alberto Raggi, Matilde Leonardi

Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Neurologico Carlo Besta (Milan, Italy)
https://www.istituto-besta.it/

The term workaholism was introduced by Oates in 1971 by combining the word “work” and the word “alcoholism” to describe addiction to work. Until that moment, the prevailing culture admired a person dedicated to work who, at most, was defined as a workaholic. Schaufeli, Taris, and Bakker (2008) defined workaholism as “the tendency to compulsively overwork.” Overall, 8.3% of employees are affected by workaholism. Among these, the age group in which workaholism is most prevalent is between 46 and 58 years (36.5%). There is an overlap between males and females in workaholism manifestation (51% of females versus 49% of males), and workers who live with a partner are much more susceptible than those who don’t (82.5% versus 17.5%) (50+ Workaholism Facts and Statistics [2023]).

​​Although there isn’t an actual classification in the diagnostic manuals (DSM-5 and ICD-11), a series of symptoms have been used to identify people dependent on work. Among these (Veodato et al., 2021):

  • an excessive amount of time (more than 12 hours per day, including weekends and holidays) voluntarily and consciously dedicated to work, not due to economic necessity;
  • the presence of frequent and intense obsessive thoughts and worries related to work (deadlines, appointments, fear of losing your job);
  • mood swings, irritability and flat emotions towards activities unrelated to work;
  • withdrawal symptoms, which appear in the form of anxiety, restlessness and panic when not working;
  • symptoms of tolerance, characterised by the need to work harder to be socially accepted;
  • abuse of stimulants (i.e., caffeine).

Another important aspect is that a person with workaholism feels the uncontrollable need to work incessantly, so much to limit or even eliminate every other aspect of their social and personal life, with inevitable consequences in every area of ​​the person’s life (family, friends, romantic relationships, etc.) and not exclusively in work activities.

Workaholism is associated with a real behavioural addiction (Rohrlich, 1981; Albrecht, Kirschner, & Grusser, 2007). According to Griffiths (2012), there are six typical forms of addiction: 

  1. Salience: Work represents the most important activity in a person’s life, dominating their thoughts and behaviours even outside workplaces and at times.
  2. Mood transformation: work is associated with mood states (that go from excitement to sadness or tranquillity).
  3. Tolerance: The workaholic feels forced to increase the amount of time spent performing work activities progressively and gradually.
  4. Abstinence: The workaholic feels physical and psychological symptoms (irritability, mood swings) in situations in which he is not allowed to work (holiday periods, illness, etc.).
  5. Conflicts: difficulty gradually emerges in interpersonal relationships (colleagues, family, friends). The person with work addiction may be criticised for his difficulty in “switching off” from work.
  6. Relapse: after periods in which the worker has managed to manage his dependence on work activities, the person falls back into excessive behaviour.

Work Addiction: the Workaholism SyndromeWhat are the symptoms of workaholism? How to recognise it?

The main symptoms of workaholism (Andreassen, C. S., 2014) are:

  • Working more than necessary happens when a worker stays in the office beyond their shift or takes work home, even working on weekends. 
  • Little sleep: if a worker is constantly tired despite being very busy with tasks, it could be a sign that he is sacrificing sleep to focus on projects.
  • Continuous review of performance: The obsessive review of one’s work performance, even when it is satisfactory, and the continuous request for feedback can be signs of workaholism.
  • Poor interpersonal relationships: isolation and non-participation in company initiatives and events are typical signs that the person is probably focusing excessively on work to the detriment of human contact.

It is important to note that in many cases, workaholism symptoms can also appear in people with regular working hours, as they are often linked to triggers that go beyond simply the time spent working (Andreassen, C. S., 2014).

What drives people who suffer from workaholism to these behaviours?

The reasons that can establish workaholic behaviour are linked to extrinsic (i.e., related to the reference environment) and intrinsic (i.e. dependent on the individual and his functioning mechanisms) motivation.

In the first case, the environment can provide pressure to seek high-performance levels. Otherwise, a competitive context perhaps could be promoted by the manager or by a corporate culture. In the second case, the intrinsic causes are connected to the needs for affirmation, success, and power, which can express themselves as a result of the continuous search for confirmation of one’s value, the maniacal control due to the fear of not being up to par, of never being completely satisfied with oneself (Bryan E. Robinson., 1998).

The pandemic situation that has been with us for three years now and the need to activate working methods other than being in the office have contributed to strengthening this concept. Many researchers (Allam, 2021; Krishnan, C., 2023) have found that the pandemic not only had direct consequences on the medical-health and economic-financial system but also had effects on a “silent” risk, thus the work-related stress, that it is often underestimated, but can create various problems in the short term.

Among the main work-related stress risks reported by workers who work from home, we found that they worked at least an hour more a day; the days started early and ended later, difficulty switching off at the end of the day, excessive time dedicated to work, not due to economic needs or work demands; obsessive thoughts and worries related to work such as deadlines, appointments, fear of losing the job, relationships with managers and bosses; few hours dedicated to night sleep resulting in irritability.

All these signals highlight how one can easily run the risk of work-related stress at work with disorders of various kinds, which in many cases can have the same symptoms as the workaholic syndrome.

Thus, considering all these factors, to minimise the negative impact of workaholism in the future, people should be trained on proper work behaviour, attitude at work, and work duration to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Future studies should explore the influence of work style and work environment on work-related stress risks among workers.

In conclusion, to reduce the risk of workaholism, some recommendations must be considered (Sussman, S. 2012): facilitate the balance between work and personal life (i.e., by promoting a corporate culture that encourages its importance); offer psychological support to employees experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression or other work-related conditions; use time tracking systems to ensure that employees do not exceed their scheduled working hours; make sure that employees have realistic and sustainable goals to prevent excessive workload and finally, encourage open communication between managers and employee in order to feel comfortable reporting any work-related issues.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Albrecht, Ulrike, Nina Ellen Kirschner, and Sabine M. Grüsser. “Diagnostic instruments for behavioural addiction: an overview.” GMS Psycho-Social Medicine 4 (2007).

Allam, Heba Khodary, et al. “Workaholism, sleep disorders, and potential e-learning impacts among Menoufia University staff during COVID-19 pandemic.” Journal of Public Health Research 10.4 (2021): jphr-2021.

Andreassen, C. S. (2014). Workaholism: An overview and current status of the research. Journal of behavioral addictions, 3(1), 1-11.

Bryan E. Robinson. A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them. New York University Press, 1998.

Griffiths, M. D., & Karanika-Murray, M. (2012). Contextualising over-engagement in work: Towards a more global understanding of workaholism as an addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1(3), 87-95.

Krishnan, C., Singh, S., & Baba, M. M. (2023). Effect of work from home and employee mental health through mediating role of workaholism and work-family balance. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 00207640231196741.

Rohrlich, J. B. (1981). The dynamics of work addiction. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences.

Schaufeli, Wilmar B., Toon W. Taris, and Aarnold B. Bakker. “It takes two to tango: Workaholism is working excessively and working compulsively.” The long work hours culture: Causes, consequences and choices (2008): 203-226.

Sussman, S. (2012). Workaholism: A review. Journal of addiction research & therapy, (1).

Veodato T., Pedro D., Garcia I.M., Aroni P.; “Workaholism and quality of life: an integrative literature review”; 2021.

W.E. Oates. Confessions of a Workaholics: the Facts about work addiction. New York, World Publishing, 1971.

“50+ Workaholism Facts and Statistics (2023)”, Quidlo.

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